Warm Winter, Slow Ski Season Takes Toll on N.H. Businesses

Mar 28, 2016

It hasn't been a great year for skiers or ski areas across the Granite State.  But it's not just the mountains that suffered from the lack of snow.

If you're going to ski at Waterville Valley, there's only one way to get there: Route 49.  Every single tourist or out of towner heading to the mountain has to drive this 12-mile stretch of road -and the restaurants, gas stations and stores along the way see their fortunes rise and fall with the  ski season.  

"Oh man," Leigh Montville says, "it's just the lack of snow has not brought the usual amount of people.  This has been one of the worst winters we've seen in a long time. A long time."

Montville has been a cashier at the Campton Mobile, one of two gas stations on Route 49, for 9 years. "This probably has topped the charts on that," she says, "the one thing that has helped us, I will say, is the gas prices being so low.  People are doing small day trips, so that has been good.  But yeah this is probably one of two worst winters since I've been here."

Outside the gas station, delivery man John Scudder loads a two wheeler full of soda.  He's been supplying goods to convenience stores and restaurants in these parts for the last 17 years.  It's not just the lack of skiers at the mountain he says,"The stores haven't been doing as much business cause there's no snowmobiles.  Overall it's definitely been a slower winter and the impact is definitely felt because of the no snow."

TJ O'Neil, owner of the Mad River Tavern.
Credit Sean Hurley

I follow Scudder's truck down the road.  He pulls in at the Mad River Tavern, a mainstay bar and restaurant on Route 49.  Tavern owner TJ O'Neil agrees with Scudder and says it's not only the skiing and snowmobiling that took a hit, but ice fishing did too. "I've been living up here 30 plus years," he says, "and I never remember a winter where there was basically - we'll just go ahead and say no snow and the lake never freezing.  With that double whammy, that's where the problem is."

O'Neil says the big holiday weeks were strong enough to keep him going. "I would never really want to say the word 'devastation' but I would definitely say that it was a good kick in the gut." 

Though O'Neil is hoping an early spring might bring the warm weather tourists sooner - hikers and bikers - he hasn't seen much indication of a turn around.  "March typically is a really really strong month," he says, "which is kind of surprising.  But this year, I'm seeing about a thirty percentish drop every week." 

Up the road a little ways, Mad River Coffee House owners Dave and Melissa Levin are seeing the same.  But despite a bad March, Dave Levin says "As far as weekend and overall numbers for January and February, we were up compared to last year."

Dave Levin working on his seasonal coffee blend "Mud Season."
Credit Sean Hurley

But - Melissa Levin quickly points out, "You know for us - it's a coffee house and even when the economy is down, coffee is the last thing people give up."

The real test, local business owners agree, starts now with the beginning of Mud Season.

"My big concern," TJ O'Neil says, "isn't necessarily what we lost for the winter, although that's a tough blow.  It's what happens in what's typically in this area, the longest dead season, which is when the mountain closes to when kids are out of school. That's the biggest."

"I think everyone in town is gonna feel that," Dave Levin agrees.  

The coffee house owner stands beside his roaster as a batch of coffee beans enters the final stage of roasting.

"What are you making?" I ask.

"Mud Season!" Dave Levin happily replies.

Mud Season Coffee. A little darkly roasted Yankee humor together with a bitter kind of New Hampshire optimism.